Saturday, September 29, 2012

Lamented Lassington

"John thought sadly of Lassington and its little church. The tower was all that was left of it. For some reason, now forgotten, a Norman church had been demolished and rebuilt in neo-Norman style in 1875. But the foundations had been faulty and the chancel had begun to part company with the nave. The end had come at a Harvest Thanksgiving service in the early 1970s. A sudden downpour in the middle of the service had deluged the visiting preacher in his stall. The church, used only occasionally by that time, had finally been abandoned..."
— Anthony Duncan, Faversham's Dream

What's left, a Grade II* listed stump, perches on a small semicircular tump rising from the farmland within a wider loop of the Leadon. The grass coarse, rough-mown, fends off waiting brambles. St Oswald still has his tower. The church, a ghost, is present only in the long rectangular gap; its delineation faintly seen and dimly imagined.

Almost buried, the steep churchyard steps disappear under grass, ankle-twisting tussocks in the dips and hollows of slipping graves whose stones lurch, defaced, generations flaking from memory, blank bones of stones under frost-sheared scrolls.

Only the lawnmower paces the line of the aisle and bumps over the vanished floor, its vaults mossed over and its chapels a figment in the grass. The skinny, blue-lias tower is silent, a bell-free shell.

I've lamented many times the misguided Victorians in their zeal for church "restoration" which usually involved destroying centuries of priceless heritage. Wall paintings scrubbed away or chiselled off, medieval pews chucked out and ancient atmosphere sterilised. But the restoration of Lassington church by Medland & Son in 1875 was so catastrophic it can only echo Michael Caine's immortal words, "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"

I haven't been able to find any evidence either to confirm or deny Anthony Duncan's description of events, taken from a fictionalised account, above. But as well as being a writer with a deep interest in, and love for, historic churches, he was rector of the adjoining parish of Highnam (into which Lassington had been absorbed) in the early 1970s and was pastorally responsible for Lassington church around the time of its demise. It's very possible therefore that he was present at the service where the preacher got drenched.

What is certain is that the church was abandoned in 1972, and as it was dilapidated and structurally unsafe, demolished in 1975. Leaving only the tower.

I'm seeing this in so many churchyards at the moment: recent harsh winters have stripped the inscriptions from old graves, in this case what looks like an early 18th century Forest of Dean cherub headstone.

There is an aching sadness about Lassington churchyard even on a summer's day. It's not much visited anyway, being stranded at the end of a long, pot-holed lane. One minute you're driving down a nice smooth road towards a well-appointed housing estate and then ker-thunk, watch you don't scrape your exhaust pipe. There is no village at Lassington apart from a few individual houses strung out along the lane, a rather nice old Court, and the roofless ivy-smothered shell of a derelict building opposite the church. Being the hub of such a small community, Lassington church endured neglect and underinvestment for centuries.

Originally built under the patronage of St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester, hence its dedication to St Oswald, for most of its history it was served only sporadically by a succession of curates and absentee rectors with a roster of eccentric names. One 19th century curate went by the name of Powell Colchester Guise. Going back to the 1640s, the incumbent was Ezra Graile, who had taken over from the exquisitely named Elias Wrench. Not so eccentrically named was the 16th century rector Henry Smith, booted out in 1518 following a charge of sexual incontinence.

In the west wall of the tower – ancient window, modern glass

The Victoria County History records that in the 16th and 17th centuries the church was "in a poor state of repair, lacking paving, glazing and tiling." Though in those days it wasn't that unusual for rural parish churches to have to make do with a bare earth floor. It had a little surge of better fortune in the 19th century when the village population grew and the church was better appreciated, culminating in the money being raised for its drastic and ultimately disastrous rebuilding. Some of the original Norman stonework was retained in the rebuilding, and it had a magnificent chevroned chancel arch (now lost). By the mid 20th century the church was slipping into terminal decline. Which is really sad, as its remaining stump is close to 1000 years old.

The surviving tower was built in the 11th century and may well even be Saxon. The first two storeys are the oldest part, and have the little round-headed lancet windows which are typical of the Saxon and early Norman period. These windows are deeply splayed, which means the openings on the inside are much bigger: large round-headed arches narrowing to a tiny little slit for the actual window (unfortunately the tower is kept locked so it's not easy to get inside and see this). The one in the west wall contains a blue guilloche glazing which is very pretty even if not very old. The window on the south side has a stone jutting out above it which may originally have been carved, but it's too weathered to tell for sure. It certainly looks very like the Anglo-Saxon window-head carvings, similarly weathered, on the nearby Saxon church of St Mary at Deerhurst.

The top chunk of the tower was added in the 14th century, and has the wider ogee-topped windows belonging to that time period. It also includes a few salvaged Roman red bricks in its fabric (one just visible in the photo above, to the top left of the upper window). There were apparently traces of Roman buildings in Lassington visible as recently as Victorian times, in the area south-east of the church where the medieval village used to be – all of which is now just lumps and bumps in a field. It's worth having a look at the aerial view of Lassington on Google Maps (you can find it quickly using the Reference Map tab above). The outline of a large square moat is clearly visible to the south-east of the church, which probably belonged to the manor house destroyed in the Civil War. You can also see the remains of strip lynchets and old roads from the vanished village.

Lassington's pagan connections are possibly thriving more actively. Long beloved by Druids and a gathering place for gypsies, the Lassington Oak was a significant landmark in nearby Lassington Wood, thought to have been getting on for 700 years old at the time of its demise. It had a girth of 29ft and had to be propped up by a complicated assortment of wooden struts. In 1960 it was blown over in a gale, and now only its recumbent trunk survives, although a ring of 12 oak saplings was planted around it in 1921 by a Druid Order. Its spirit also lives on in the Lassington Oak Morris Men who continue the age old traditions of mummers' plays and morris dances in the area.

Writing in 1938, when the church was still extant and in use, Arthur Mee mentions a giant elm tree at the churchyard gate with a girth of over 20ft, and another in the churchyard standing over an ancient coffin. All gone now.

There is now a visitor information board beside the tower which includes some heartbreaking photos of the interior of the church during its last days, derelict and crumbling.

This doorway in the east wall dates back no further than 1976, constructed as part of a necessary shoring up of the wall following the destruction of the body of the church. The wooden door itself is Victorian and was originally fitted during the rebuilding scheme in 1875, while the ironwork on it is known to have been salvaged from the church's original south door and is much older. This ironwork closely resembles that on the west door of Rudford church, a mile or so up the road.

Lassington church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, a charity which has saved many historic churches from destruction, doing a great job despite facing a 20% cut in its funding.

Victoria County History: Gloucestershire vol. VIII (draft version, 2010)
Mee, Arthur, The King's England: Gloucestershire (Hodder & Stoughton, 1938)


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  2. I love the eastern door! Look at that iron work. It makes the hobbit-like door to the Starchild incense and candle shop in Glastonbury look positively twee! I want one and I want it now :)
    I've got to say I also like the modern stained glass window. Used to despise modern glass in old buildings but the Thomas Traherne windows in Hereford Cathedral and also the Malvern Priory ones have won me round. Thanx as ever for the post.

  3. I'm glad it's not just me who loves church doors. I often photograph them and then hesitate to post them in case nobody's interested. Some day I should probably do a whole post devoted to them!

    I agree about the modern window. Somehow the 1970s bobbly glass fits perfectly into this tower. I also came across a modern window which had me transfixed recently - the main East window in Hartpury church. A 1990s window in an early Norman church, but it's a stunner. Generally though, the colours in modern glass are an insipid imitation of the amazing colour they could do in medieval times.